Lost & found: the healing power of writing
At a recent Life Righting Collective Follow-up Group (aka FUG), I got to thinking about the sort of healing that writing can initiate.
One of us wrote about writing off a car at the age of 21 – and the subsequent loss of dignity, mobility, cash and car that initiated: leave alone the potential loss of life and/or limb it might have caused if the driver had not been wearing a seat belt.
Another writer talked of a different type of loss – a wife gone missing, the husband calling a counselling service to talk it through, unable to communicate clearly exactly what had happened. Still another talked of the losses (and gains) of being a mother; while another woman talked of the loss of dignity, power and voice in a difficult and overtly sexist episode whose violence was implicit rather than explicit. What, in these cases, prevents us from speaking out when we know that our lives depend on it?
This loss of dignity and freedom was writ large on the final piece another woman read to us – a multi-layered draft of a play about an abuse of authority inflicted on her at an airport, just because she ‘looked like’ a terrorist.
These incremental losses – of things, of people, of love, of integrity, of opportunity, of hope, of faith – affect us all; but perhaps even more so in a world subjected to institutionalised violence in many states – even, perhaps especially, the United States of America, despite its on-paper constitutional freedoms.
Much of the writing in our first anthology – This Is How It Is (Jacana, 2018) – finds itself grappling with such losses. There is, for example, a deeply poignant story of a first kiss and dance with a charming neighbour, who within a month is dead. This is echoed in Siya Khumalo’s extraordinary debut memoir You’ve Got to be Gay to Know God (Kwela, 2018), where his first boyhood crush on a green-eyed, copper-haired boy is scythed down by the boy’s early death from meningitis.
In that case, and in many others, these were losses that could not be fully expressed or explained – Khumalo was in the closet at the time – but now, through writing, this and other losses can be processed and grieved, both privately and publically. For myself, bereaved by suicide several times, the taboo around particular types of loss – to AIDS, to suicide, to violence and murder – is particularly close to home. So much so that I chose to use a pseudonym for a piece in our anthology about suicide – because I knew that there were people who would read it that I had chosen not to tell; and perhaps to protect my family from making such a tragic loss public. These sorts of subterfuges, however well-intentioned, keep us hidden, feed our shame and – often – make us ill. Blowing open these taboos – even if there is some collateral damage – is almost always, ultimately, more healing than harmful.
This is because all of these types of loss – and many others – are intertwined with feelings of guilt and shame, which prevent us from declaring our losses, for fear that we – those left behind – will be judged. And yet the more there is silence around these taboos, the greater the hold they have and the less opportunity we have to share our experiences and heal. It is no accident that one of the earliest Act-Up activist slogans around HIV and AIDS was ‘Silence=Death’. If we do not speak out, who will know we are hurting? Is our shame worth hiding when our sanity, our loves and our lives are at stake? History seems to tell us not.
Today we have treatment for HIV, if not yet a cure for AIDS, and there is no doubt that the trajectory of the research that has brought us here is due to the sacrifices that gay men made in the first years of the pandemic. In much the same way, the slow – to my mind, way TOO slow – movement towards some sort of accommodation of the concept of euthanasia is another step towards eradicating the shame, guilt and taboo that remains around assisted death, which others still wish to call suicide. Sad to say, South Africa has a long, conservative way to go in this regard. At the same time, constitutional freedoms for LGBTIQ people are by no means vote winners and are hugely under threat from the proto-fascist moral majority – again, Khumalo talks wisely and chillingly to this point.
I have an interest in these particular invisible losses, of course – I too am gay, have worked in HIV education and have lost loved ones to both the virus and to suicide. All of these leave their scars. But it is my firm belief that the work the Life Righting Collective does helps to heal them as we give the people who live in this damaged country of ours the chance to talk of the hurt and the anger they feel, as well as the indignities and losses they have suffered.
I am running a Life Righting Collective Memoir Course in November, from Friday November 15th to Sunday November 17th, in Table View, Cape Town. If you would like to write out, about and through some of the loves, lives and losses in your own life, you are most welcome to join us. Please write to firstname.lastname@example.org and check out the courses section of our website on www.liferighting.com/courses. You will be amazed how when we read to each other about our lives, how much more connected, heard, witnessed and healed we can feel.
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